Dosan remembers that first day. He saw her in the midst of a bustling crowd. He saw her, and it was as if time had stood still. He very well knew time actually did not stop, but it sure felt like it had. Pedestrians zigzagged through the paved concrete to make their way across the park, but he stayed immobile. It was only when their eyes met that he released the breath he had been holding.
Was that the moment everything changed?
It’s impossible not to agonize over what could have been in the aftermath of heartbreak. It was all he could think about for a good while. He spent years trying to beat it out of himself, trying to convince his wayward heart that it doesn’t need an anchor, but one look at her and he’s right back where he began. Time away did nothing to dull the sting. It remains just as acute as it was the day it found him.
Or was it when it first dawned on him that sail off without a map held a world of possibilities?
She is leaning against his shoulder now, asleep and unaware of the chaos she inspires in his mind. The fire he stoked earlier crackles in the quiet night. He's not sure if the warmth emanating through his body is feeling its effect or the effects of her closeness that he has been starved for all this time.
Dalmi shifts a fraction, and the hair he’d tucked behind her ear falls over her face again. Reflexively, he reaches over and pulls it back for her. She has smudges of dirt on both of her cheeks. He thumbs over one side, and it’s barely a graze but he still feels the pleasant buzz of her skin. The smudge remains. With a sigh, he turns to the business plan he holds in his hands.
The possibilities were endless, Dalmi had said about Tarzan. Just how much could it learn?
Dalmi has always been a dreamer. A seasoned one at that who is keen on solving problems, not letting them become the nail on the coffin of the ideas she spins.
It was a concept he couldn’t ever grasp. To dream was to be brave, to want something so unfailingly that the prospect of failure itself would never be a deterrent. It was a terrifying idea. He could not set himself up for something that was just as likely to fail as it was to succeed. Life offered too many uncontrolled variables, too many uncertainties.
He flips through the pages, studying the scope and intended applications, the road to an MVP, short term and long term goals, and he can see it all so clearly. Dosan has never been particularly visually inclined, but Dalmi evokes something in him. She has a formula figured out, a way of imagining things, that immediately make sense to his one-track mind. She speaks, and he sees colors in her words—red, green, blue, and all the others he never thought of before he met her. He sees moving pictures brought to life in vivid sharpness, sees the solution of a problem he had never even thought of. Dalmi is a visionary, bursting with life and ideas for how it can be elevated. Dosan became familiar with the sense of fulfillment that had alluded him most of his life in working with Dalmi, in making her colorful, broad stroked dreams come true.
Perhaps that is why she came to be his dream. He wonders now; was it then that he reached the point of no return? When he realized that he wanted nothing more than to become the man who was deserving of her beautiful heart and the pure, unbridled warmth it exuded? It was the first thing he'd wanted unfailingly, even with the heavily skewed probability that he was going to fail.
Dalmi stirs awake, lifts her head off his shoulders leaving room for the cold air to rush in.
“Ah, I’m sorry,” she says, not looking at him.
“You should get some more sleep.”
“No,” she says, decisively turning to him. “I didn’t come here to sleep. We need to—”
She is pointing at the Tarzan business plan still in his hands.
“Did you read it?”
“What did you think?”
What did he think?
His thoughts are clear as the starry night sky, but he struggles to verbalize them. This is another fork in the road. The first time he knowingly took the wrong turn. The road was riddled with several thorns, but the joy of falling in love with Dalmi easily overpowered any pain he felt, any pain he still feels. If given the chance, he’d take the same wrong turn again in a heartbeat.
But he needs to do right by her this time. It’s what Dalmi deserves. He will survive even if he is not standing next to Dalmi, even if there is someone else in place next to her. After three years being oceans apart, he’s just grateful that he gets to breathe the same air as her.
“What can I do to make you work with us? At least tell me the terms you want,” she prods, when Dosan doesn’t offer anything.
“Stock options, ten percent?”
“Dalmi-ah, forget it.”
“Or do you want shares now? I can try and persuade unnie.”
“The money I got when 2STO took over Samsan Tech,” he begins, steadying his voice. “I still have it. With that money, I want to acquire shares in Cheongmyeong Company.”
He turns to face her, holds her gaze confidently, as she furrows her brows in confusion.
“What are you talking about? That should be your money. Just join the company. About shares, I’ll talk to unnie—”
“That’s my condition.”
The question in her eyes makes the dull ache in his chest sharper.
“I know, you and Team Leader Han are…,” he can’t say it, he just can’t. “I will always respect your decision. In business and—, and in everything.”
He looks away, moves to pick up the cup ramen that is lukewarm to touch now. He can still feel the weight of her eyes on him. It makes the storm inside his heart rage even harder. He reaches for the second cup ramen and pushes it towards her.
“Team Leader Han and I,” she starts, pulling the chopsticks off the edge of the cup ramen. “We’re not… we’re not together.”
It’s possible his jaw would have dropped to the floor if he hadn’t been chewing mouthful of ramen. He slurps the last of it and looks at Dalmi uncertainly.
“But Team Leader—”
“It’s not true,” she interrupts, hastily.
Dosan would be much more upset with Han Jipyeong if Dalmi hadn’t been looking at him with her wide expectant eyes this very moment.
“I—,” he starts, and stumbles immediately. “I mean, it would’ve made sense if you two were together. He is your first love.”
“My first love, Nam Dosan from the letters, doesn’t exist.” She sighs, setting the cup ramen down. “My first love was an illusion, but my feelings for you, the real Nam Dosan, was never an illusion. I’m sorry I said things I didn’t mean.” Her voice is shaking by the end, her eyes filled with tears.
Dosan is overwhelmed, but his hands move of their own accord when her tears spill. He pulls her closer instinctively, an old habit borne out of the need to reassure her in times of distress.
“Dalmi-ah. Don’t cry.” He has her face cupped in his hands, wipes the tears running down her cold cheeks with his thumbs.
“I thought about you everyday,” she says, lips quivering. And Dosan can’t believe what he is hearing. He wants to echo her words, because it’s true for him too. His every waking moment was haunted by traces of her—sometimes as a pleasant memory that gave him the strength to pull through a difficult day, more often as an omnipresent ache in the hollow of his chest. He wants to tell her these things, so she knows what she means to him, but there is a knot in his throat that he can’t unentangle. All he can bring himself to say is, “Why?"
She blinks back her tears, looks at him in confusion. “Why do you like me?” He asks again.
He continues when she doesn’t offer a response. “I am not the one who wrote the letters. I’m not the one who comforted you. I lied to you, I hurt you. Why do you like me?”
Dosan feels tears stinging the corner of his own eyes. He’s still recovering from the whiplash after learning that Dalmi is not with Han Jipyeong, but these doubts have plagued him for a long time. Even when things were fine between them, before the house of cards crumbled, he could never be sure that it was really him that Dalmi liked.
She takes a deep breath, reaches for his hands that are still cupping her face. Her touch brings a sharp awareness, but Dosan doesn’t flinch. It warms his heart instead as she uses her own hand to steady his and nuzzles her cheek into his palm further.
Sensing what is coming next, he beats her to the punch. “You like my hands. Only my hands. How can that beat someone you held in your heart for fifteen years?”
“You really don’t know, do you?” The pain in her eyes is a pinch in his own chest. He would do anything to take it away from her, but he needs to know for certain so he persists.
“Why do you like me?”
“It’s a metaphor,” she says, squeezing his hand.
“Your hands. They’re so much more than just that, they're all of you. I like you because of you. You’re the whole and only reason.”
It takes a moment for him to process this but when he does, he is dizzy with relief. Dosan feels his heart soar, and suddenly, he is a different kind of overwhelmed. Tears spill over his eyes, but he's smiling through them. Dalmi’s eyes soften, and mirror the relief on his own. For the first time in a really long time, it feels like they are on the same page again. And that means everything to him.
His eyes slip to her parted lips, his thumb inches closer and just barely grazes the tip of her cupid’s bow. She closes her eyes at that. Dosan doesn’t know much about physical intimacy, but he knows that that's a green light.
Nam Dosan has relived their first kiss countless times since that blissful evening on the Morning Group rooftop. He had been so sure he would never forget the softness of her lips, the dizzying force of her fondness. It had been one of the few things that kept him going when he woke up in a foreign city, not knowing how he fit in, for three years.
When their lips touch, he knows his memory had failed him. Her lips are ice cold but gliding his own against it is a high like no other. They kiss slowly at first, like they are building a fire from the sparks that fly between them. She moves closer, snakes her arms around his neck, and the fire ignites in earnest. Dosan chases after the heat, licks it off her bottom lip, and feels her breath hitch. Reluctantly, he breaks the kiss but he can’t bring himself to put much distance between them. Dalmi’s cheeks are tinted pink, and the smudges of dirt do nothing to deter from the picture of loveliness she makes.
She opens her eyes after a moment, like she’s waking up from a daze. Her pupils are dilated, and her brows raised in question.
“Thank you,” he says, voice hoarse and overcome with emotion. He doesn’t wait for a response, immediately leans back in and closes the gap between them. There’s so much more that needs to be said, but it can wait. Tomorrow will come soon enough, and the sun will bring with it light and clarity.
For now though, under the cloak of the starry night, Dosan wants to curl closer to her warmth, and whisper his boundless longing into her lips.